By Kathrin Köster

Are you ‘sandbagging’ or ‘air-bagging’? Leading towards more entrepreneurship

Kathrin Köster: What is ‘sandbagging’ and ‘air-bagging’ about?

Jürgen Schäfer: Well, I coined these terms when I took over some new challenging tasks last year and started the budget planning and goal setting process. I guess I got a bit of a culture shock that made me realize how important trust is.

Kathrin Köster: What happened?

Jürgen Schäfer: I felt like an intruder. When I travelled over to my new teams, they had prepared their profit and loss statements and expected me to sit with them for 1 or 2 days to discuss every single line. And they were ‘sandbagging’: Protecting themselves. They inflated the risks, portrayed a rather gloomy picture of the market, just to defend themselves upfront. And that’s what I call ‘sandbagging’. It was me against them – an atmosphere of self-defense, against taking risks and moving ahead.

Kathrin Köster: What did you do then?

Jürgen Schäfer: I realized how I proceeded with the rest of my teams and took the same approach. I closed the books and started to talk with my new colleagues – eye to eye. I asked them about their feelings, where they saw difficulties. I told them that I even had scaled down self-set targets in other units in order to prevent managers to put too much pressure on them. That surprised my new teams: A manager who was genuinely interested in their situation on site and who favored human interaction instead of going through the numbers. You can’t lead the business from above, not living with the people, and just coming once or twice a year to control the figures. You can’t understand what’s behind, and what’s really possible.

Kathrin Köster: And what is really possible?

Jürgen Schäfer: That’s the air-bagging part. Rather than controlling the figures like doing a house search, I follow the daily business of all of my teams in a different way. I browse through the major deals in our IT-system, pick 4 great ones and 1 where I don’t understand the figures. I send an email to the sales person in charge via the head of subsidiary to say thank you, to ask for the major match winning reasons, or to ask for explanations of the figures.

The advantages are: The sales people feel appreciated, and we all learn about their “tricks” and insights. We pass them on within the subsidiary and across the whole network. This is how we learn. We get more aware of what we can do well, and the sales people get more self-assured and motivated. There is more air to breathe, business to make. People get more entrepreneurial – and we all benefit.

Kathrin Köster: Your air-bagging practice gives you full visibility of the most important figures – your indirect connection to your customers. Yet, people are not controlled but encouraged to share their keys for success. Thanks for this good example of transformational leadership!

Jürgen Schäfer is the COO of Bechtle AG, a Germany-based B2B and B2G IT company that sells IT hardware and software, as well as related services to business and public-sector clients. Jürgen is the head of the e-commerce unit with roughly 1,500 people operating in 14 countries through 24 subsidiaries with revenues between 5 and 200 million Euros. Overall, the e-commerce team achieved revenues of 1 billion Euros at the end of 2017.